When I began teaching at the University of Minnesota, I was in my late 20s and my students were often in their early 20s or late teens. As one way of establishing myself as their “professor,” I set up strict deadlines for handing in papers. Of course a few students came to me every term to ask for extensions because of their own or other people’s health issues or because they had lost their drafts or notebooks or because they were needed for family emergencies of one sort or another. In conversations with colleagues, the subject of students’ trying to get extensions for handing in work or taking exams came up fairly often. Upon hearing that I always gave my students the extensions they said they needed, I was upbraided or just laughed at. “Don’t you know you’re just being conned?” I was asked. Sometimes older professors would insist that I was undermining my authority in the classroom in addition to being made a fool of by people of lower stations in life than my own.
The more these kinds of rebukes came my way, the harder I thought about the whole conundrum in which I found myself. Eventually, I came to a position that felt comfortable to me and that fit with my overall attitude toward my fellow human beings. I decided that it was all right with me if sometimes I was going along with the old joke about the dog’s eating my homework. So I began saying to other members of the department when this subject was on the agenda: “Even if 50% of the time I’m being suckered, the other 50% I’m helping a young person dealing with an emergency or an emotional trauma or simple exhaustion from juggling too many balls at once. 50% seems like a pretty good percentage to me.” My colleagues either rolled their eyes at my gullibility or walked away in disgust.
As I’ve aged and heard stories of terrible circumstances up against which friends and friends of friends are coping every day, I’ve been increasingly pleased with my stance in those classrooms. And in today’s political climate, when whole segments of the population are living in daily and dire fear about what may happen to them and their children or spouses, I’ve decided to extend silent empathy to strangers I pass on the street or smile at in the grocery store or watch walking back to their pews in church. I think as I look at them “I have no idea what you are dealing today. If things are hard, may you find solace and support.”
If I could speak to those academic colleagues who thought me such a push-over, I’d remind them of my comfort with the 50% margin I accepted long ago. And I’d add one more caveat that might since their negative opinion of me: “Not only am I helping the honest 50%, but I’m causing the con artists to face the fact that their ‘line’ is working, so maybe they may think twice before they spin it on someone else.” And, who knows, maybe some of those pesky dogs learned something about Shakespeare or Woolf or Baldwin by chewing up sentences about what their owners had written about the author’s work.